Josefina Mendez

'Jewel' of the Cuban National Ballet

Josefina Méndez, ballet dancer: born Havana 8 March 1941; married Carlos Gilí (deceased; one son); died Havana 26 January 2007.

Josefina Méndez was prima ballerina of the Cuban National Ballet for almost 35 years and, after retiring from the stage in 1996, remained as its ballet mistress, teaching such young dancers as Carlos Acosta who has since been invited as a principal guest artist at the Royal Ballet. In recent years, she largely ran the company after her mentor, the ballet's founder and still director Alicia Alonso, became increasingly blind.

Méndez, like Alonso before her, was praised by critics for her blend of classical technique, dramatic depth, freedom of expression and Latin passion, notably in the Ballet Nacional de Cuba (BNC)'s signature two-act Giselle, which she performed in productions worldwide, including as guest artist at the Paris Opéra.

On first seeing her perform in the mid-1960s, the dance critic Arnold Haskell described her as "the queen of tragedy" and dubbed her and her three contemporary prima ballerinas at the BNC as "the four jewels of Cuban ballet", a tag they retained ever after. Another of the "jewels", Loipa Araújo, was invited as a guest coach at the Royal Ballet in 2001.

Méndez's son, Víctor Gilí, is now a primo ballerino with the company. He appeared as Hilarion in Alonso's interpretation of Giselle at the Sadler's Wells Theatre in August 2005 and as Camacho in Don Quixote in the same theatre last September, when his mother already knew she had cancer.

Josefina Méndez was born in 1941 in Havana, to a doctor father and a mother who was a physical education teacher, and showed gymnastic ability from an early age. By the time she was seven, she was attending ballet school. That same year, Alonso, already a prima ballerina of world renown at both the American Ballet Theater in New York and the Ballets Russes in Monte Carlo, had returned to her native Havana to open her own private school and company, the Alicia Alonso Ballet.

Alonso toured Cuba, including farms and villages, to look for suitable young pupils. She hand-picked Méndez as a member of her corps de ballet in early 1955 and the young dancer, just turned 14, swallowed her pride to début as a man - one of the Neapolitans - in Swan Lake in March that year with Alonso playing both Odette and Odile. Alonso didn't have enough male dancers for the parts, a situation that was to change dramatically after Fidel Castro's revolution.

Through most of the 1950s, Cuba was run by the military dictator Fulgencio Batista - not an ideal backdrop for the arts, or for boys dancing ballet. After his 1959 revolution, however, Castro immediately committed himself to giving the masses access not only to education and health care, but also the arts. Impressed by Alonso's school, he gave her $200,000 from the state coffers and thus it became, like everything else, a state institution, renamed the Cuban National Ballet. While many artists fled Castro's regime, soon to declare itself Marxist, Méndez stayed, graduating to prima ballerina in 1962.

Having worked with both Russians and Americans in New York, Alicia Alonso brought a particular feel to her choreography. What's more, she had lived in Spain as a child while her father, a military officer, served there, and became fascinated with flamenco. Add to that the Afro-Cuban rhythms of the Caribbean island and the BNC's productions, both classical and modern, were strikingly unusual. The Cuban dancers first came to the notice of the world, including Arnold Haskell, at the international ballet contest in the Bulgarian Black Sea town of Varna in 1964, where Méndez took the bronze medal. The following year she took the silver.

While most Cubans were barred from leaving Castro's Cuba, its dancers, like its sportsmen, were free to travel, encouraged to publicise the achievements of la revolúcion in return for the privilege. As a result, and with the ballet school free of charge to students and promising salaries higher than those of doctors, more and more men took to donning their tights. The BNC was in demand, winning widespread praise for its dancing, and sympathy for its not so stunning costumes, a result of the revolution's ongoing economic crisis, and not least the US trade embargo.

Méndez, known in Cuba by her nickname "Yuyi", and the other "jewels" of the BNC knew that Alonso was a difficult, if not impossible, act to follow as a prima ballerina. But, while rigorously passing on her technique, she encouraged them to express their own selves through the characters they played. Méndez recalled a day when a member of the corps had compared her looks and her dancing style with that of the great "maestra Alicia", who would eventually win general recognition as a prima ballerina assoluta. Alonso called Méndez into her dressing room, sat her down and said:

Never let them compare you, neither with me nor with anyone, because we all have our own individual personality. You will be who you will be.

When Méndez was invited to be Giselle as a guest artist of the Paris Opéra in 1972, she recalled receiving what she thought was a frosty reception from the cast. After her first solo rehearsal, however, the entire cast gathered around the stage and burst into cheers and applause.

Dancing during four separate decades - the 1960s through the 1990s - she performed in more than 130 roles, many of them interpreting the works of Federico García Lorca, natural material for Castro's Cuba. In between BNC world tours, she and the corps would perform for free throughout their native island, in schools, factories, village community centres and even on military bases.

The free performances, or cheap tickets in Havana, turned ballet into an incongruously popular medium in Communist Cuba, almost on a par with their beloved baseball. Young would-be dancers such as Carlos Acosta queued up to join the BNC rather than take up athletics.

Méndez made a moving farewell appearance as a dancer in Havana in 1996, in a piece called Intimidad ("Intimacy") written and choreographed especially for her. Playing the male lead was her son, Víctor Gilí. To symbolise the handing over to a new generation, the piece ended with Méndez walking offstage silently, leaving her son alone in the spotlight. The theatre sat in stunned silence before bursting into rapturous applause.

After her retirement, Méndez stayed on as ballet mistress and artistic director under Alonso. Alonso, now 85, who had suffered all her career from partial blindness, still remains firmly in spiritual charge. "Alicia may not see it, but she can feel the way a dancer is moving, and still has plenty of input," Méndez said in one of her last interviews.

Phil Davison

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